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Friday 2 January, 2009  

Good morning

And Happy New Year to you.  Strangely, my neighbors (in Leavenworth) chose to celebrate the new year at about 11pm rather than at midnight, and with an impressive series of explosions lasting at least 20 minutes or more.

I've been having a lovely - and lazy - week.  Well, that is, if you can say spending the week with a four year old allows for being lazy.  What with Anna and repeated driveway shovelings in a futile attempt to see the blacktop for more than half a day at a time, and walking rather than driving to the shops due to an impassable road beyond the driveway, it has actually been a very active week, but I've treated myself to a short break from work, and so there's only a short newsletter (and no feature article) for you today.

My daily driveway shovelings are coming to an unexpected end.  The heaped snow on either side of the narrow clear lane on the driveway has now got so high there's nowhere to easily put extra snow.  So I'm trying to head back to Redmond, except that both the two highways between here and there are currently closed due to snow.

Those of you who still remain believers in global warming are invited to come shovel my driveway and help me return to Redmond (which also had by far the heaviest snow falls in December of my 23 years there).  The numbers aren't yet in, but my guess is 2008 will continue the current trend of each year becoming globally cooler rather than warmer.  And that truly is 'an inconvenient truth' the global warming zealots are having to confront.

The start of each year is usually a time for reflection, and for expressing a small measure of pride in the successes of The Travel Insider in the previous year.  However, this January sees us with a difficult past twelve months and a challenging year ahead.

On the positive side of the ledger, I wrote more last year than any previous year (almost 400,000 words - about the same as you'd typically get in six average sized books).  But this effort notwithstanding, website traffic is slightly down for the last quarter of 2008 compared to 2007, and while the year showed a net increase of 280 newsletter subscribers, the growth was all in the first half, with the second half of the year showing a slight loss of readers.  From what I can gather, many other websites are experiencing similar traffic changes.

More worrying for the future are industry predictions suggesting that website advertising revenues (my main source of income) may drop by as much as 50% this year due to companies cutting back on advertising budgets.

So it will be an 'interesting' year ahead, for sure.

Dinosaur watching :  Cold weather caused problems to some one million travelers this Christmas season, with nearly 8,000 flights being cancelled between 19 - 28 December.  And with the flights that did operate being already booked close to full, it was hard and sometimes impossible for passengers on cancelled flights to get an alternate flight to where they needed to be.

I've heard from many readers who suffered during this time.  Here's one wide-ranging commentary that includes the line paragraph

The mother of all airline excuses, of course, is "it's the weather," but I've had it with that one. There's weather every winter. If an airline or train company can't function in commonly occurring weather, then it fundamentally can't perform the service it purports to sell, which is to get me from point A to point B on a predictable schedule.

This is very true.  It is cheaper and easier for airlines to inconvenience passengers (how much does it cost an airline to have you sleep overnight at the airport?) than it is to have more emergency resource available to handle bad weather demands.  Nine times out of ten - perhaps even 99 times out of 100 - a 'weather' problem is not actually a problem with the weather, but rather a problem with an inadequate response to a weather problem.  Maybe it is our overstrained antiquated air traffic control system; or airports that have more flights scheduled to take-off and land per hour than they are capable of handling, even on a clear sunny day; airlines with inadequate avionics to land in poor visibility conditions; or ground handling companies that have insufficient snow removal and anti-icing equipment.  In all these cases, and many more, it is not the weather that is the problem, but rather it is inadequate responses to a weather situation that could be otherwise managed.

Enough of the negative.  In among the tales of woe, there's one extraordinary example of a good airline.  Canadian carrier, Westjet.  The weather in Canada was as bad as it was south of the border, indeed it is being claimed their holiday season weather wass the worst in 40 years, and inevitably, Canada too suffered travel problems from coast to coast, with numerous airports closures and record numbers of flight cancellations and delays.

Stories are now emerging about WestJet employees who went the extra mile just to get to work to help out stranded passengers.  For example, office staff volunteered to man check-in counters to help reschedule passengers.  Although no airlines are required to provide meal vouchers or hotel accommodations for delays or cancellations because of weather, Westjet chose to do so voluntarily.  Stranded passengers were given meal vouchers, hotel accommodation and transfers between hotels and airports.

More than 5,000 hotel rooms were provided free of charge at a cost of more than $500,000.  More than 25,000 meal vouchers were given to guests in airports at a cost of some $220,000.  Another $250,000 was spent on ground transportation, including taxis and chartered buses.  Aircraft were chartered from third-party airlines at a cost of about $325,000 to assist in clearing the backlog of stranded guests.

Westjet even helped passengers on its much larger competitor, Air Canada, by getting them on WestJet flights when AC couldn't accommodate them.

One of the interesting issues associated with code-share flights is that one of the code sharing partners might cause the flight (and the code-sharing airlines in general) to take on a higher security risk profile.

For example, would you like to be on a flight that had, amongst other code-share designators, an Iraqi Airway flight number?  Air France/KLM have signed a preliminary accord with Iraq to help Iraqi Airways offer service to European destinations and to renovate Baghdad's airport.

The accord covers technically enabling Iraqi Airways to code-share flights with Air France-KLM and will have AF/KL assist Iraqi Airways to enable it to fly international flights, including to/from Europe.  AF/KL will also get involved in revamping Baghdad's third terminal to something approaching international standards.  The Baghdad airport was controlled by US troops but as of 1 January the airport has been returned to Iraqi control.

So, if you're on an AF/KL (or possibly NW or who knows what other airline) flight and in case you're wondering which code-share partner the two letter code designator 'IA' refers to that is sharing your flight, now you know.

We all know that airlines are tremendously dependent on jet fuel, and the cost of the jet fuel they burn, with fuel costs representing something like 30% of their total costs (this percentage amount has swung wildly up and down during the last year of oil price changes).  Airlines go to extreme lengths to buy fuel at the best prices, with departments tasked with continually monitoring where on their route systems fuel is cheapest, and comparing things like is it overall more advantageous to fill a plane's tanks with cheap fuel then to fly for much of a day's operations with unnecessarily full (and therefore heavy) tanks of fuel, or is it better to keep the plane's tanks as empty/light as permissable, reducing fuel burn rates, even if it means buying more expensive fuel later in the day.

Their obsession with minimizing fuel has now extended to things like carrying less drinking water on flights and fewer magazines.

So what airline in their right mind would voluntarily pay a single penny more for fuel than it needs to?

Apparently, most if not all of them.  The international airline organization IATA is calling for airlines to buy 10% of their fuel from bio-fuel sources in the next few years, and Air New Zealand has been loudly trumpeting its latest test flights using a mix of bio fuel and regular fuel.

Two comments about this.

Firstly, the airline industry as a whole is committing a strategic blunder here.  They are attempting to appease the climate-changers who have chosen to focus on the very small amount of global carbon emissions from air transportation.  But there's no appeasing such people, and offering them compromises like this results only in them accepting the compromise, then coming back for more.

The restrictions they'd like to see on air travel would mean the end of affordable air travel for us all, and would also massively upset global trade patterns.  Say goodbye to affordable fruits and vegetables that are flown from across the country or world to your local supermarket.  Indeed, say goodbye to affordable food anyway if still more of the world's agricultural resource is to be retasked to growing biomass for biofuel, rather than food for people.  Say goodbye to much 'just in time' manufacturing and distribution (which often uses airfreight).  And say goodbye to much of world trade - you'd be amazed how much of the foreign goods that we rely upon every day were flown rather than shipped to the US.  The most visible part of air transportation might be passenger services, but air freight is the submerged part of the iceberg that impacts our lives just as much, or maybe even more, than the ability to fly cheaply to Mexico for a break, or to the in-laws for Thanksgiving.

Secondly, do you really think airlines would choose to absorb the extra costs of bio-fuel?  They've shown their ability to add surcharges for almost everything to their basic fares already, so how long do you think it would be before they started slapping bio-fuel surcharges onto their fares?

And, noting how almost every surcharge they currently impose is for more than the underlying cost, do you think the airlines would be as low as to actually profiteer from the extra cost of adding bio-fuel supplements?

Bottom line - whatever the reason that motivates the airlines for being interested in bio-fuel, you can be sure it is not eco-altruism.

I've been very puzzled at the predictions by airlines and industry observers/analysts that 2009 will be a bad year for the airlines.

Here's one airline that is boldly predicting that 2009 will be its most profitable year ever, notwithstanding an anticipated drop in demand.

I received an interesting email from reader Michael

You mention that travelers should give Virgin America a try.  And quite honestly, I want to.

But personally I am not sure that I will.  I simply am in too deep with Delta.  As I have half a million (with an ever declining value) skymiles banked with them and have achieved Delta's highest elite level, every time I fly with another non-partnered airline I feel that I am losing points and potentially losing securing elite status for the upcoming year.

I know my miles are not worth what they once were and I am by no means happy with the service, or lack thereof, I have received from Delta in the past year or two (they just raised their ticket change fee from an already inappropriate $100 to $150!!!). But like a neglected dog, I still run to my master because of the chance for bonus miles or an upgrade here or there even though there is a very nice and friendly family that lives right across the street!

The miles and perks are how major airlines hang on to their dissatisfied yet hopelessly loyal passengers. So, it would take a lot to jump ship and give VX a try even though they seemingly offer a superior product for the money.

Do you have any suggestions on how to reframe my viewpoint so that giving another new airline the chance it deserves from a frequent flier is all the more likely?

It is easy to understand Michael's quandary with DL vs VX.  I was in a similar position when I was a corporate flier, too, and the annual attaining of the highest level membership in my frequent flier program was a matter of considerable preoccupation.  And this is part of the problem that all new airline startups have - How to pry the most valuable potential passengers from the 'golden handcuffs' of other airlines and their loyalty programs?

About the only thing to do is to carefully project the likely miles you'll earn with your preferred airline mileage program, and if it seems certain you'll achieve your desired seniority status for the next year, then you can consider the extra miles on top of your qualifying miles as 'discretionary' miles that can be flown with anyone you like.

Did you realize that in little more than 18 months, the US will have retired its remaining space shuttles, and will be left with no manned space flight ability at all?

While it is definitely a case of good riddance for the terrible white elephants that the space shuttles have always been, it is a shame that we now have to turn to Russia and China for help sending people too and from the space station.  The nation that was the first - and only - country to put a man on the moon will now no longer be able to even put a man into low earth orbit, something we've been able to do for the last 50 years.  Progress is a funny thing.

Oh - if you'd like to have a space shuttle yourself, then NASA is offering them for sale (estimated cost, delivered to an 8,000' runway near to you, is about $42 million).  But don't go getting any ideas - just like BA made sure no-one else could fly its Concordes when it got rid of them, NASA is stripping the shuttles of their main engines.

On the other hand, NASA is also selling main engines, too....  More details of the shuttle sale here.

Something the US has been very slow to embrace is text messaging, but it seems to be catching on now, and is also being increasingly integrated into other online services, which will send you text message alerts for all variety of things.

But did you know that the next message that might be costing you as much as a quarter to send or receive costs the phone company so close to nothing as to be almost unmeasurable?  Here's an interesting article on this subject.

One of the fears that many of us have is that the technology that is increasingly being deployed to monitor and control us may be faulty - a consideration that is often overlooked and/or understated by the supporters of the technology.

For example, I recently reviewed a TomTom GPS unit that included the ability to tell you what the speed limit was on the road you were traveling on.  This is a very useful feature - around town it is easy to miss seeing a change in speed sign and to forget what the speed limit is on the street you're driving along, and out of town, it can be confusing to know if the road/highway/freeway has a 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75 mph or some other speed limit associated with it.

But, the problem with the TomTom unit was that many times it didn't know what the road's speed limit was, and many times when it thought it did know, it was wrong.  That's not a total problem when it is merely an advisory extra feature on a GPS and not something you're actually relying on.  But in Britain there's a proposal to fit speed limiting devices to cars that will restrict your speed to the posted speed limit, based on what a built-in GPS unit 'knows' the speed will be.

This Week's Security Horror Story Read about the travails of a 60 yr old man dressed as a clown who tried to get on a flight in the UK.  Amongst other things, his plastic 'gag' handcuffs were seized as being a security risk.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the real clowns were the security 'professionals' who subjected the man to the strip search, rather than the professional clown they victimized.

Here's a story that highlights the difficulty that some people encounter in these paranoid times.  Perhaps their problem is even unavoidable.  But the part I find hardest to excuse is the apparently refusal of the airline, AirTran, to fly the nine Muslims, even after they'd been cleared by the FBI of all allegations.

Lastly, here's more good economic news.  The sooner, the better, for us all.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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